I've heard about cochlear implants as an option to replace hearing aids. Who are they for?
Answers from Douglas P. Sladen, Ph.D.
Cochlear implants — which bypass damaged or nonworking parts of the inner ear — can improve hearing for anyone with hearing loss that can’t be adequately managed with conventional hearing aids.
Cochlear implants are electronic devices that convert acoustic sounds into electrical pulses that stimulate the auditory nerve directly. The pulses, which are organized like the keys of a piano, are delivered to points along the inner ear.
The pulses stimulate the auditory cells that represent the various speech sounds. Your auditory nerve carries the signal to your brain, which recognizes the signal as sound.
Cochlear implants may help if you have great difficulty understanding speech in everyday listening situations — even with hearing aids. Children and adults who had speech and language skills before losing their hearing generally have an easier time adapting to the cochlear implant than do people who never had any hearing at all.
Cochlear implants can’t restore "normal" hearing. However, children with hearing loss who receive cochlear implants at a young age will have enough sound input to develop spoken language skills. Adults who lost their hearing are excellent candidates as well, and despite hearing electrically can hear exceptionally well.
Children always receive some training to ensure they develop hearing and spoken language skills. Adults may also receive rehabilitation, though their progress is faster because their brain has already learned to interpret sound. The amount of time needed for communication training or rehabilitation varies from a few months to several years.
Also, despite well-established clinical procedures, the amount of benefit is not the same for everyone. Children and adults who receive a cochlear implant shortly after losing hearing tend to benefit from improved speech understanding more than do those who receive an implant several decades after hearing loss began.
Are you a candidate?
Whether you’re a candidate is determined by how well you can understand speech using prescription hearing aids. An audiologist — a specialist in hearing loss and hearing aids — and a medical doctor who specializes in disorders of the ears, nose and throat (ENT) can determine whether cochlear implants could help you. If you’re a candidate for an implant, your audiologist and ENT doctor will discuss the risks and benefits as well as potential costs with you.
With Mayo Clinic audiologist
Douglas P. Sladen, Ph.D.
Feb. 28, 2014
- Cochlear implants. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/hearing/pages/coch.aspx. Accessed Nov. 2, 2013.
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- What is a cochlear implant? U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/MedicalDevices/ProductsandMedicalProcedures/ImplantsandProsthetics/CochlearImplants/UCM062823. Accessed Nov. 2, 2013.
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